WASHINGTON: The Navy has ordered that vacuum cleaners be emptied after a fire in one caused up to $500 million in damage to the nuclear submarine USS Miami while the boat was in drydock being serviced.

The fire at Portsmouth Naval Shipyard, Maine, started in a vacuum cleaner that had apparently sucked up something hot that smoldered and then caught fire inside the vacuum. Since the vacuum was stored on the Los Angeles sub, the fire was able to spread. While the May 23 fire did not damage the sub’s nuclear reactor or imperil the hull, it did ravage the torpedo room, the command and control section of the sub and other forward portions of the boat and injure seven people.

The Navy says in a statement that: “Preliminary investigations indicate that the fire started with a heat source being vacuumed up…”

The statement goes on to note that:

All public shipyards have been directed to empty industrial style shop vacuum cleaners each shift or remove them from the ship. Additional inspections of ships have also been conducted for fire safety and fire fighting response with special attention on temporary services and the stowage of combustible materials on board. All industrial facilities and ships use some type of shop style vacuum. NAVSEA is reviewing all models of vacuum cleaners currently used shipboard and will issue specific direction on what models are authorized for use by the end of this month.

This is the sort of thing Pentagon spokesmen most fear: something occurs of national importance that has the potential to affect national security and it’s caused by something mundane that could be mocked. While this certainly isn’t comparable to the overhyped and illusory $600 hammer that became an enduring symbol of Pentagon waste and abuse, it has the potential to become embarrassing for the Navy at a time when every dollar is fought over and acquisition miscues or stupidities can get a program killed.

The Navy deserves praise for being open about the cause and addressing it quickly and forthrightly, especially when it concerns the part of the service about which the least is said — the nuclear submarine fleet. For the record, the early official estimate of the fire’s cost is $400 million, topped up with another 10 percent “for secondary effects.” However, Navy sources tell me the likely figure may well be closer to $500 million.

Part of the reason for the Navy’s openness probably stems from the fact that the Navy is eager to allow congressional appropriators the chance to build repair funding into the Overseas Contingency Operations (OCO) portion of the defense spending bill so the boat can be redeployed as soon as possible. Congress, already worried about the size of the nuclear attack fleet, is likely to look favorably on the Navy’s request.